Surfing Gnarly Waves

Surfing Gnarly Waves 

Yom Kippur Day Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

One of my favorite passages in the Talmud reminds us of an important quality to call on during hard times.  The passage is commenting on the obligations of a father toward his son.      “A father is obligated regarding his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him, to teach him Torah, to find him a spouse, to teach him a craft. Some say Af l’hashito b’mayim.” (Tractate Kiddushin)

When the Talmud tells us what we need to teach our children, it reveals to us the values that we should all cultivate whether we are in child rearing mode or not.   The question then is what is the value that our text is identifying in that last phrase?  “And there are those who say, Af l’hashito b’mayim. 

The phrase is not exactly clear.  Some translate it as   “To swim”, “to tread water”, “to sail”.  I am going to take some liberty because we are in the South Coast and translate it as “to surf the waves” (not surf the internet). 

What does it mean to teach your child to surf?

Surfing is a unique athletic activity.  Not only does it require a person to be in excellent shape, blessed with fine balance, and elastic flexibility, but surfing demands attentiveness to the changing conditions of the waves and the surf.  A surfer is surrounded by enormously powerful natural forces that would easily overwhelm him if he did not know how to adapt.  Even the best crusher (top surfer) will wipe out in the surf if he cannot respond to the distinct curl of the wave or anticipate the rapidly approaching crest.  

The surfing metaphor best describes the value the Sages are trying to teach us.  The art of surfing in life is how to adjust to a new environment we find ourselves in.  It is the ability to face adversity and challenges, and make the necessary adjustments to survive what is coming upon us.   

This historic moment in America, even the whole world, we face an economic challenge not seen since the Great Depression.  Everyone is impacted.  Every community is impacted.  While economists cite examples of some improvement, most people don’t feel it. The most obvious manifestation of these hard times is the fact that so many Americans don’t have, cannot find, or fear losing work.  

Scott Simon of NPR commented recently about the realities faced by many Americans and some within our own congregation.

“About 1 in every 10 Americans in the work force — 15 million, the population of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago combined — doesn’t have a job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 3 million more that have just stopped looking for jobs after a year because they can’t find one.”

What is the impact of not having a job for many people?

“Having no job does not mean having no work. Your children must still be fed, bathed and ferried to school, which is a lot of hard work. But you have less money for food, gas and the new shoes your children need for school.

It means that if you have a toothache, you might pretend it will go away, until it becomes a sharp pain. Then you have to see a dentist, but may not be able to buy a new winter coat. 

Scott Simon tells the story of a man who told him of not having bought a stitch of new clothing in more than a year; his shirts were beginning to fray. When he got his first job interview in months, he bought a new shirt, so he wouldn’t look tattered and defeated. And when he didn’t get that job, he was ashamed that he’d bought a shirt, instead of food for his family.

You may be sure that your family loves you, but worry that they’ll start feeling sorry for you, and wonder why you have to be the one person in 10 who doesn’t have a job. You may blame politicians, brokers and bankers, but in the middle of the night, you might turn your eyes to the sky and wonder what you did, didn’t do or should have done.”

I share this difficult subject with you because it is not an abstract issue.  It has impacted people in this room.  Some time ago a person I know from outside the congregation came to me who had built up a successful housing business.  He was a family man, a confident person, well-liked by many.  He shared with me that his business had not made money since the collapse of the housing market.   He had to figure out some other way to gain a livelihood and wanted to run his thoughts by me. 

This is only one of many conversations I have had over the past couple of years.

Some of us have been able to get through this with minimal damage and even a few of us have had success, but all of us have been impacted. Our congregation has been impacted.  Our wider community has been hit.  As you know even if you have a job or a business in this uncertain economy you know that it is not guaranteed.

Powerful forces are changing our world.   Our politicians are in stalemate on the policies required to repair the economy.  This creates a paralysis and hyper partisanship in our political system.  There appears to be no end in sight to the political impasse.  A great anger is seen in the land.  People in their rage wave flags that say don’t tread on me.  But they have no answers on how to deal with the challenges before us.  They turn to political celebrities who make irresponsible promises and feed demagogically on the anger and frustration felt by so many. 

It is not my place to hold forth on politics or policy. Instead my question is how to surf through these hard times?  How do we keep our balance as that huge wave crashes over us? 

As Jews we belong to a people that can say with pride that we have survived the vicissitudes of history for over 3000 years.  That fact continues to amaze me.  The Jewish people are good surfers.  We have been around to see all sorts of conditions including a few historical tsunamis that nearly wiped us out in history. 

In this room there are precious people who have endured much crueler times.  Nothing can compare to what you went through. You have a lot to teach us about determination and survival.    

Let us then take heart and turn to the wisdom of the Jewish people and our spiritual tradition for wisdom and guidance.   

In my sermon, The Audit, on Rosh Hashannah I spoke about the great Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we chant four times over these Days of Awe.  This powerful prayer offers a very important teaching on how to face the uncertainty of our future.

 Uteshuvah, Utefilah, Utzedaka maavirim et roa Hagezera.  Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedaka averts the harsh decree.

In the context of the prayer, this passage lays out how we can respond to the prospect of divine judgment. The Gezera-the decree-is what God has in store for us.  Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedaka are Hebrew terms embedded in our tradition as ideal religious behaviors.  

But let me take this line out of the context of divine judgment and reread the expression, Roa Hagezerah-the harsh decree, as referring to our current economic predicament. 

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and tzedaka are the authentic Jewish responses to coping with hard times.  It is the way we surf. 

How do we understand Teshuvah in our historic circumstance:  Teshuvah in the Great Recession means to acknowledge our excess and our selfishness.  As one commentator wrote recently, “We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.”

During these hard times we must examine our values and what is important to us.      Teshuvah means coming back to basics, living more simply, prioritizing what’s important.    These values include sacrifice, pulling together to support each other, generosity, and self-control. 

Parents take in a child who after graduating college cannot find a job.     An out of work spouse takes care of a partner who now bears the financial load.   A family rallies to overcome strained relationships to stay together to support each other.  Another family makes a dinner table a gathering place for the family to reconnect and to pool resources.

This is true for shuls as well.  The question has to be asked about how shuls get back to basic values during a time of economic crisis?  We cannot put our heads in the sand.  Rather we need to find out how to be supportive of those who face great challenges.   How do we create a sense of community during a time of crisis for many of our members?  What is our relationship to the community around us?  Do we remain focused on our own community or do we also engage in helping others beyond the walls of this synagogue?  

Tefilah-Prayer.  Prayer is a great resource during hard times.  When we are starkly aware of our vulnerabilities and insecurities we turn to God.  God is a tremendous help if we let God in.   In our most fearful and anxious moments, a turn to God can provide solace and hope.  God is our rock which we can hold onto during the most difficult challenges.

Tefilah also goes beyond our private turns toward God for help.  As Jews we understand that prayer is not just an individual pursuit, but also a communal activity and expression that offers meaning and comfort. Prayer can be a powerful and comforting resource.  When we find community in prayer, we diminish our isolation and our worry.  We gain perspective, discover renewed energy, and find hope.

Does our communal worship during the year provide support, solace, or meaning during hard times?   Where do you find solace during these hard times?  Have you thought of coming to services at the synagogue as a place of solace and meaning?  If you do not think of a service as a source of solace, then what does it feel like for you?    What would  a solace giving service look  like, feel like?   Talk to me about it or talk to other people in the community about it. 

Tzedaka-Acts of Righteousness.    We know that a lot more people are in need.   These times require a higher level of tzedaka than normal times.

The greater burden of tzedaka falls on those of us who have been fortunate to have resources during hard times.  Many have stepped up.  More need to. 

How does our community respond to people who are suffering?  People feel they cannot join or they must resign because they can no longer afford Temple dues.  Doesn’t the present time call out for the synagogue to establish a ‘hard times fund’ that will make it possible for the Temple to subsidize the increased number of members on reduced dues, to provide scholarships for school, camping, and youth activities.  Such a fund gives those more fortunate in our community an opportunity for tzedaka that both helps families and helps the Temple to get through this challenging time.    

Tzedaka, like powerful prayer, is a source of solace and hope.  Unlike prayer which we do for ourselves, tzedaka is what we do for others.  One of the most impactful activities I have seen shuls do is a Mitzvah day-where the entire congregation engages in specific projects to aid those in need in their local communities.  Imagine if our synagogue had a mitzvah day where we identified projects where we can help people in the Long Beach area. 

For example, our local Jewish Federation has developed a campaign to counter hunger in our community with direct action by synagogue volunteers at local food banks.  By emphasizing this as a congregational activity-we build community by shared selfless acts and soften the blow of these devastating times. 

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedaka together will not calm the crashing waves around us, but will help us to surf them and come through intact.  Most important we need to help each other, to support each other, to seek out each other during these rough times.

Surfers have a word for heavy, big, and intense waves: Gnarly.  We are surfers in the midst of a series of gnarly waves, struggling to avoid being overcome by the powerful forces around us.  Yet we have to remember as individuals and as a community that we have the resources to come through this great challenge we are in the midst of.  I pray that each of us find the inner strength to surf safely through these ebbs and flows. May this community, find the strength to find its way through the cascade of waves.  Let us respond as Jews have responded through the ages with a personal and communal Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedaka.

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